Note: This is the first article in an ongoing series. Make sure to check out the other articles after finishing this one:
Could gluten be causing your fibromyalgia?
People with both irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia are nearly seven times as likely to have undiagnosed celiac disease. (1)
Consider this number in comparison with the rest of the population – up to only 3% of people worldwide are diagnosed with celiac disease.
The high number of people with fibromyalgia who also have celiac disease makes sense when you look at the symptoms of both disorders. People with fibromyalgia frequently show similar symptoms to people who have disorders related to gluten. These symptoms include:
- Chronic pain,
- Low energy levels,
- Brain fog,
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
These overlapping symptoms raise the possibility that some of these patients could be experiencing undiagnosed celiac disease or an underlying gluten sensitivity. (2)
If that’s the case, getting rid of these symptoms may be as simple as finding out whether or not you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity and making the necessary dietary changes.
If you have fibromyalgia or irritable bowel syndrome, confirming that you do or do not have celiac disease is extremely important. Celiac disease causes malabsorption, pain, weight loss and bloating among many other symptoms. Prolonged suffering can lead to other autoimmune disorders. An autoimmune disorder is a malfunction of the body’s immune system that causes it to attack its own tissues. You can read more about what they are here.
As celiac disease is passed on genetically it is even more important to be screened if you have a family history of celiac disease or another autoimmune disorder.
Celiac disease – a brief introduction
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder related to the intolerance of gluten – a protein stored in wheat, rye, barley and other grains.
A key symptom of active celiac disease is irritable bowel syndrome. The body recognizes the gluten protein as a foreign invader and attacks the area of the intestines where it is digested. This leaves this important organ unable to digest food and results in pain, cramping and frequent trips to the bathroom. In fact, of those with celiac disease, almost 40% suffer from irritable bowel syndrome. (3)
Fibromyalgia and IBS: is there a connection?
Those with fibromyalgia also have rates of irritable bowel syndrome that are much higher than in the general population. It’s not yet clear if IBS causes fibromyalgia, or if fibromyalgia causes IBS, however there seems to be a definite link.
Up to one third of people who have irritable bowel syndrome may go on to develop fibromyalgia. (4,5) The risk of developing fibromyalgia seems to depend on the severity of the IBS – the worse the symptoms of IBS, the greater likelihood there is of developing fibromyalgia. (6)
In a study done in Spain, almost 7% of patients diagnosed with IBS and fibromyalgia had undiagnosed celiac disease. The simple act of removing gluten from their diet led to huge changes in both their digestive health and pain levels. (7)
But what if you’ve already been tested for celiac disease and it came back negative? Could gluten still be contributing to your fibromyalgia symptoms?
Fibromyalgia and gluten sensitivity
The answer is yes – even if you do not have celiac disease, gluten may still be the cause of your fibromyalgia.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is increasingly being recognized as an actual medical condition. In non-celiac gluten sensitivity, patients who do not have celiac disease experience almost exactly the same symptoms as those who do have celiac disease. (8)
The symptoms of gluten sensitivity do not just occur in the gut and can include:
Notice anything? Just like the symptoms of celiac disease, these sound a lot like the symptoms commonly experienced by those with fibromyalgia.
In a 2014 study, 20 people who were diagnosed with fibromyalgia and negative for celiac disease were placed on a gluten-free diet. The results of this small study were startling: (11)
- All patients had a decrease in pain levels;
- 15 of the 20 participants no longer had chronic, widespread pain;
- 15 patients were able to return to work and normal life;
- Three patients who were dependent on opioid painkillers were able to completely come off their medications;
- Two patients who entered the study with psoriatic arthritis went into complete remission.
For some of the study’s participants, improvement in symptoms occurred within a month after gluten was removed from their diet. For others, the results were more gradual and occurred after many months of a gluten-free diet.
Despite experiencing a relief from their symptoms while eating gluten-free, eight of the patients in the study returned to eating gluten when the study was complete. They all experienced a worsening of symptoms, which went away when they began eating gluten-free again.
While more studies like this are required for us to know the true connection between gluten and fibromyalgia, the initial results are promising. There does seem to be a link between the health of one’s gut and fibromyalgia.
Healing fibromyalgia by going gluten-free
With so many studies linking gluten, fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome, it only makes sense that if you have received a diagnosis of fibromyalgia syndrome you need to request testing for celiac disease and gluten allergies.
But don’t go gluten-free yet!
Testing for gluten allergies needs to be done while you’re consuming wheat products. Therefore, have the lab testing done before you begin the 30 day reset diet that we discuss in this post. Don’t begin a gluten-free nutrition plan until all testing is complete. Ensure that you are tested for both celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
If celiac disease is ruled out, I still strongly encourage you to try a gluten-free diet to see if you notice any results. For a deeper look into where gluten may be hiding in your diet, please see this post.
Once you’ve figured out if gluten is playing a part in your fibromyalgia, move on to the next step. I’ve written two other related blog posts about the role food plays in fibromyalgia:
Also published on Medium.